My name is Mel. I am a mum. A nurse… I work in ICU.
When I was in labour I made lame jokes about trying a little of each drug available – you know, for professional development… But the joke was on me as shortly after I found myself ‘trying out’ the mental health system and being forced to take drugs I really had no intention of ever trying…
There is no history of mental illness in our family. We are all moody at times, ambitious, creative, and enjoy our independence. But no diagnosed (or divulged) mental illness.
When I was diagnosed with postnatal psychosis two weeks after my son was born, I was well on my way to being dangerously psychotic, but my husband will confirm I was still able to rationally discuss advanced ventilation strategies with the ambulance driver and sound quite normal and educated. Everything I had ever learnt seemed clearer, amplified. It therefore came as rather a shock that I had never heard of this potentially life-threatening illness.
Elliot was born late in the evening. I lay awake all night going over the day in my head marvelling that a little life had emerged from inside me.
Coming home from hospital, we laughed and chatted. I was nervous and emotionally exhausted but felt excited all at the same time. Standing under a cold shower, the weight of the world was suddenly on my shoulders and the responsibility of this new role felt overwhelming and suffocating.
Those next few days were a blur of breastfeeding, expressing, cold showers, and desperately trying to ensure my partner Simon felt included in Elliot’s care. By my second day at home I had a newfound compulsive need to clean. I needed everything to be perfect. I spent much of the nights when I wasn’t feeding, fastidiously cleaning – toothbrush in one hand, toxic chemical in the other, writing thankyou cards, tidying cupboards, scribbling thousands of to do lists, and even moonlight gardening all in an effort to maintain this facade. I was passionate about every task I confronted and felt so energetic.
On our check up with the midwife when Elliot was 7 days old I quietly divulged that I hadn’t slept for more than 2 hours in any 24 hour period and I was feeling a ‘little manic’. She seemed strangely thrilled. I felt confused, tears threatening to fall and betray the mask of confidence. I looked in her eyes, imploring for her to understand. I needed to talk. I needed her to ask more questions. My tongue was frozen to the roof of my mouth. She reassured me kindly that all new mums feel sleep deprived and the hormones cause a feeling of euphoria and I should enjoy it while it lasted – ‘...oh, and go home and try to get some sleep’.
Oh. I walked off, battling with the argument in my head. Should I have said more, should I reveal the truth behind that innocent revalation. Just keep walking. Deep breath. I am fine. I am fine. I was fine.
My pregnancy had been a bit of a struggle. I felt inadequate to be a mother. I worried something was wrong with our baby. One day during the final month I wrote “I continue to feel a dreadful sense of impending doom. I’ve had it most of my pregnancy. Will my baby be disabled? …Will it be me? … postnatal depression? …an accident?”. I was uneasy and anxious much of the time but felt I couldn’t discuss this with anyone.
In the first week after Elliot came along, I started to cultivate enthralling theories about social grace and every-day humanity. These theories were so ground breaking in my head I became obsessed with writing them down and wanting to share them. They were so important I was sure I could publish a book that would change the world. I wrote feverishly. Too busy. Too much to think about. Too excited to sleep. Not tired anyway… not tired anyway.
As the speed of my thoughts multiplied, I fell deeper in love with my family and felt I might burst from happiness. This happiness was all absorbing. I felt a confidence within myself I had never enjoyed. My excitement about how my future would be with this amount of drive and confidence was breathtaking. The more I thought about it, the more I was sure I had been a little depressed for a long time, escalating during pregnancy and now I was finally normal! I was in awe that giving birth had jump-started my life back on track!
Meanwhile, I became engrossed in my writing, list making, cleaning, gardening, teaching Simon how to care for Elliot, preparing for my newfound life… all the while feeling the deep dark clouds of impending doom lurking close behind me. The mania was just starting to tip out of my control. In many ways, I camouflaged this by scribbling down the torrent of words that came tumbling out of me onto paper. I desperately wanted to blurt it all out to someone – but who? Who would listen?
As I searched for the centre of my ground breaking theorem, my frame of mind began to swing from a rollercoaster ride like thrill to ‘will I throw myself in front of a bus’ to see if its fun? Luckily Simon was there and noticed my behaviour had developed a little beyond the ‘overtired.’ In his defence, I had mastered the art of hiding exactly what was going on, but it was getting increasingly challenging to ascertain what was socially acceptable anymore.
That evening as he rang around for help, the mania took off, like a kite in a tornado I lost control and the strings of rational behaviour broke. I made wild accusations. Strange sentences erupted out of me at a horrifying pace. I told graphic inappropriate stories. I threw myself around the house like a basketball causing injury to myself and the walls. I begged Simon to understand... But there was no logic left. He sat astride me on the kitchen floor where I had crash landed while he rang the hospital to ask what to do. I was thrashing and screaming at him trying to tear his clothes. My mind was whirling out of control. Despite the mayhem, I had a moment of common sense - I called our neighbour to drive us to the hospital.
Those 12 hours were maybe the worst for my husband. Maybe it was the nurse who pulled him aside to explain postnatal psychosis is treatable and I would definitely make a full recovery that held him together. He somehow stayed calm as I swung on my high trapeze from perfect rationality, to dangerous insanity. I was one minute feeding our son and chatting about the day, the next I had him tucked under my arm in a panic, trying desperately to escape with him so the system wouldn’t gobble us both up and separate us forever. One such attempt led to a lengthy confrontation with a large party of hospital and security staff and ended in me being tied to a bed and being injected with sedatives.
I have been asked what I make of this scene in retrospect. Was I angry at my treatment? Should chemical and mechanical restraint be banned? No. Never. I remain grateful to this day that Elliot was kept safe and that someone put the mania to rest.
The psychosis raged during the first few weeks at Glenside hospital. I spent 3 days in the psychiatric ICU before transferring to the mother and baby unit - Helen Mayo House. I reluctantly resigned myself to the medication after the fighting became tiresome and the security staff familiar. I hid a note inside the back of my mind to take myself off them as soon as I was released, but for now to go along with the regime quietly. The drugs thrashed away at the mania, chewing off portions of my happiness piece by piece until there was nothing left but a few crumbs on the floor.
Elliot was oblivious. He thrived on routine and responded to the clockwork of Helen mayo. His role somehow anchored me to life. He loved our simple routines. Side by side, he helped me see forwards and out of my complicated brain. I loved him but as my world unravelled further, my love seemed mechanical and contrived.
I had my 6 week follow up appointment with the obstetrician. She had tears in her eyes and gave me a hug. I had nothing to give. Emotionally paralysed by the lithium. I wanted to ask ‘did you know? did you know about this? could we have seen it coming if I had been honest? did you know? am I really sick’.
I found the everyday world so overstimulating. I found visitors overwhelming. I needed quiet, and I needed time to climb out of that place where I had been prisoner. There was a pivotal turning point in my recovery. It was likely when the Lithium started to work, but it coincided with a revelation – I finally accepted I was unwell.
As I stumbled closer towards discharge, doubt started to emerge its ugly head. Could I survive outside of this safe environment? Would I be ok without being watched continuously. As the day of my planned departure date came closer the fear of the outside world increased and in some ways I wanted to stay in that secure locked unit.
After 8 very long weeks at Helen Mayo House I was discharged. Five of those weeks I was detained under the mental health act. I needed help at home for another 6 months. My husband never complained as he took doing all the night feeds, the early mornings, caring for me and working full time all in his stride.
Could my story have been different? Shorter? Less close to a knife’s edge? Nobody will ever know the answer to that and I certainly do not dwell on it. What I do think about is how and who should ask women how they really are. I share my story in the hope that you will consider it and a hope that women will be monitored for warning signs of mood disorder and followed up in a timely manner. The sooner intervention is initiated, the sooner the long journey to recovery can begin.
For me, life goes on. Elliot was well over 12 months old when I felt “myself” had been glued back together. My illness has taken me many months to fully comprehend and will need life time management. I am OK with this. I am often overwhelmingly tired – I think all mothers can relate to this. But sometimes mine is a sad tiredness of dreams shattered, months half lived, and a blissful happiness that really never existed. I remind myself regularly to climb from that strange place that haunts me and simply live each day. To forgive the memories of bizarre things likely never said, to not dwell on the gaps I fell through, to ask my friends how they really are, and to focus forwards, on a future that is mine to write.
After long deliberation and much planning, we did have another beautiful baby. He is truly a blessing as are the people who successfully supported us through a great pregnancy, a terrific birth, and a positive postnatal period.
When I was diagnosed with postnatal psychosis two weeks after my son was born, I was well on my way to being dangerously psychotic, but my husband will confirm I was still able to rationally discuss advanced ventilation strategies with the ambulance driver and sound quite normal and educated.